“In the spring of 1873,” wrote Sarah Butler York, “a party of sixteen persons, four women, seven men and five children, started from the central part of Missouri to find homes in the far west; all were hoping to better their fortunes, and a few, including myself, were seeking health.”
No one expected Sarah York to survive the arduous westward journey. In fact, her husband had been advised to carry a shovel with him to dig her grave somewhere on the Plains. But Sarah had no intention of dying, and like so many women who made the trek west, she grew stronger with each mile.
Sarah Emily “Sally” Butler was born Nov. 24, 1843, in Otterville, Missouri. Where she met and married George Riley York is unknown, but by the time the couple left Missouri, Sarah had already given birth to three of their six children. The journey they were undertaking would take four months, traveling about nine miles each day.
As the wagon train made its way across the Plains, Sarah and the other women collected buffalo chips to start their evening fires and cook the family meals. The older the chips, the brighter the fire, according to Sarah.
The family first settled in Colorado, staying about three years before learning their property was part of an old land grant and they could not gain clear title. In 1877, George headed for the Gila Valley along what would become the Arizona/New Mexico border and arranged for Sarah and the children to follow him, a trip of over 500 miles.
That October, Sarah settled her children in a large spring wagon covered with canvas and drawn by 10 oxen, part of a train made up of 16 wagons. She proclaimed her accommodations quite comfortable.
“The man who owned the train promised to make the trip in six weeks,” Sarah wrote in her memoirs, “but on account of having poor oxen and encountering stormy weather, we were almost three months on the way.”
Because the journey took much longer than anticipated, Sarah’s provisions were depleted long before they arrived at their destination. The Mexican men who drove the teams generously shared their food, consisting of beans, flour, coffee, bacon and dried fruit.
Sarah and her children learned a few Spanish words and phrases, the alphabet and how to count. But when she inquired as to the meaning of the melodies the men sang, she was told she would enjoy the tunes much better if she did not know exactly what they were singing.
According to Sarah, “The train moved so slowly we would take turns walking in good weather and could easily keep up with the wagons. The children gathered quantities of pinon nuts and in the evening the men helped to roast them. We passed many hours cracking and eating them as we moved along.”
About 50 miles outside Silver City, New Mexico, George York met up with his family.
“My husband was very proud to think I would undertake such a journey to be with him,” Sarah wrote, “but I told him to make the most of it for, knowing what it meant, I would never do it again, alone.”
George had acquired an engineering job with a smelter in Silver City. The family lived there for two years before George ventured into cattle ranching and moved his family into a small house about a two-day ride from Silver City. Sarah taught school to a handful of children and proudly purchased a sewing machine with her earnings.
“After a year we moved fourteen miles down the river into Arizona,” Sarah wrote, “and settled on government land. ... There were a few shacks on the place, and my husband soon had built a large adobe house with shingle roof, windows and floors which were a real luxury. Here we felt at home once more. Our house was a stopping place for travelers going from the railroad at Lordsburg to Clifton and the Longfellow Mines.”
The York spread was nestled about halfway between Clifton and Duncan in what is now Greenlee County. If hostile Indians were seen in the area, the entire community often huddled together on the ranch.
Since Indian attacks were a continuous threat, Sarah often worried if the men did not return from rounding up cattle when expected. “My husband would scoldingly say that he always trailed a cow until he found her, and that I must get used to his being away. I often told him the day might come when he would wish I would become uneasy and send men to hunt him. This proved true, for if I had known it was Indians instead of rustlers who had stolen our horses three years later I would have sent men to his relief and he would not have been ambushed and killed.”
In the fall of 1881, rustlers took off with a considerable amount of York animals. George headed out to find his herd, tracking them into Doubtful Canyon. He crossed into New Mexico near Steins Peak. Suddenly, George realized he was boxed in with the rustlers, now identified as Apaches, bearing down. He stood no chance of escape.
George’s body was brought back to the ranch and buried in an unmarked grave.
The year after George’s death, a post office was established near the ranch and the town of York, or York Valley, Arizona, was founded, honoring the man who gave his life eking out a living in the desert Southwest.
Sarah remained on the ranch for several years, but life was not easy. At the time of her husband’s death, she and their five children, ranging in age from 16 years to 8 months (she had lost one son years before), struggled in the remoteness of the ranch site. She sought out teachers to educate her children, but it was difficult to find someone willing to stay long so far from any town.
Sarah spent her final years in California, where she penned her reminiscences in 1923. She died on Jan. 3, 1939.